Stewart MacFarlane

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Stewart MacFarlane
Country Life

Philip Bacon Galleries
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia 1998

Review by Grafico Topico's SUE SMITH

Stewart MacFarlane Hymn 1998 Private collectionYOU have heard of the film of the book and the book of the film. But what about the painting of the film that doesn't exist? This is the beguiling theme of 'Country Life', an exhibition of artworks -- oil paintings and gouache and pencil studies on paper -- by Stewart MacFarlane, an Adelaide-born painter and sometime pop musician.

Now in his early 40s, and currently residing in the Noosa region, MacFarlane is an extraordinary and nomadic artist (since the mid-70s, he has lived in New York, Melbourne, Italy and New Mexico and made side-trips to places like the Northern Territory). He draws on his peripatetic lifestyle -- and on a rich vein of imagination -- to make art that is like a succession of film stills taken from an endless road movie.

McFarlane is best-known for his suspenseful film noir-ish paintings of cities at night. These invariably seem to have the seondary reality of images we encounter in the cinema or on television, though their mood is strong. He has painted many pictures which carefully orchestrate an atmosphere of unresolved tension -- suspending a moment which might, in the next few minutes, erupt into death (a young girl, several stories up, dangerously climbing a ladder), or sado-masochism (a woman, nude and bound at the wrists, waits while a man shaves) or violence (a man in a phone-booth pauses, holding a pistol at his side).

Although these works are not really very explicit or realistic, some viewers have found them shocking, perhaps because their characteristic cool, non-judgmental tone makes the implied havoc or terror seem even more chilling. One can imagine MacFarlane murmuring Christopher Isherwood's phrase as he works: "I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking."

Stewart MacFarlane "Visit to Palm Beach" 1989 Private collectionToday, however, as he draws upon the presumably less eventful surroundings of bucolic Noosa, MacFarlane's latest work has become even calmer and, regrettably, a bit blander in a few pictures.

He is still, however, a master of the ambivalent attitude; it continues to be the strength of his art and the style of his life. What, for instance, are we to make of 'Velvet waters'? This is a painting which seems to have an each-way bet on voyeurism, uncomfortably setting up the viewer as a snoop, while at the same time urging us to enjoy being peeping Toms. We look (as if through a telephoto lens) into the window of an ugly high-rise motel building with swimming pool bathed in the ghastly artificial colours -- violet, acid-green, turquoise, sour yellow -- of fluorescent light. Two women and two men are drinking and dancing with sexual abandon, while a third man watches and bides his time alone on a balcony.

Scenes like this remind us that serious art doesn't have to be made from heroic subjects. MacFarlane has said that art needs to be of its time and from the everyday, and accordingly he shows old artistic subjects in a new light: his history paintings are about strange contemporary encounters near bowling alleys and in motels; his nudes are sexy tarts reclining in leopard skin pants and black bras; his still lifes are black patent stilettos.

In other pictures, MacFarlane takes us into the rural landscape, with relatively peaceful scenes of people fishing in the Noosa River and of the Northern Territory outback at Stadley Chasm (though, in another uneasy touch, an abandoned camera next to a fall of rocks makes you wonder if a tourist has had a nasty accident).

Such uneventful subjects draw attention to MacFarlane's virtuosity (or lack of it) as a painter. In some of the larger works, the drawing is stiff and the surfaces of the pictures veer towards sameness: the colours are uniformly bright and garish, textures consistently smooth. While such effects can work to emphasise the abstract and emotionally expressive qualities of the pictures, they do also make some passages look unconvincing when one notices rocks, water and cloth all painted in the same way.

But MacFarlane's best works overcome technical flaws with their psychological strength. He gives "reel life" a surprising density and power. He doesn't always make people look beautiful. Some pictures are unflattering and that's the point. They bring out the human side of his subjects, hinting at complex lives full of uncertainty, reflection or even escapism. 

Copyright © 1998 Sue Smith. Not to be used without the permission of the author

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